Austin Film Festival 2011: The Writer's Festival

Faith Korpi

The Austin Film Festival has done a laudable job of carving an interesting niche.


Director: Jim Field Smith
Writer: Jason Micallef

Edward Scissorhands

Director: Tim Burton

Jeff, Who Lives At Home

Writer/Director: Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass

Like Crazy

Writer/Director: Drake Doremus

The Artist

Director: Michel Hazanavicius

So many film festivals, so little time. Luckily many of the major festivals seem to cater to a different group of people in the film industry. This both offers something for everyone and keeps things interesting for those who attend them all. Toronto is the festival for studio executives, Cannes is for the elite, Sundance is for the hip and indie, SXSW is for the fans, and the Austin Film Festival (AFF) is for writers.

At AFF, films are presented by the screenwriters in contrast to the usual director/actor combo (unless of course the director happens to also be the writer), panels are centered on the writing process, and the conference is meant to nurture and encourage up-and-coming writers. While most festivals use the conference portion as filler content around the films, at AFF the conference sessions are the epicenter. Yes, John Lasseter did the intro for the retrospective screening of Toy Story, but he also sat down with film critic Elvis Mitchell for almost two hours in a conversation panel and did an “Art of Storytelling” panel with Caroline Thompson (Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas). Both panels offered engaging and elaborate stories and insight into the creative processes of these iconic individuals -- insight going far beyond even the most elaborate DVD special features.

Another unique element of AFF is the Pitch Competition where writers have the chance to pitch their scripts in 90 seconds to a panel of agents, producers and managers. There’s also a screenplay and teleplay competition -- both are highly regarded in the industry and have jump-started many writing careers in the AFF’s relatively young life (18 years).

As it is “the writer’s festival”, it was only fitting that the opening night film, Butter, would be from the top of the 2008 Black List. For those who don’t know, the Black List is written by 290 film executives and made up of what they consider the best unproduced screenplays from that year. Previous Black List scripts have included Slumdog Millionaire, The Social Network, and The King's Speech. Scripts must receive five mentions to appear on the list and are then ranked according to number of mentions. Butter was ranked third on the '08 list with 44 mentions.

Franklin Leonard, founder of The Black List presented Butter with screenwriter Jason Micallef (this is his first feature). A movie starring Jennifer Garner called Butter? Totally not what you’d think. Even the Black List description is confusing and not very enticing; “A small town becomes a center for controversy and jealousy as its annual butter carving contest begins.” It’s actually a satirical comedy about politics and the ridiculous nature of it all -- not since Saved! (Brian Dannelly’s 2004 film about fundamentalist Christians) have I seen satirical comedy done so well. But what do politics have to do with butter? Nothing. Butter is “about” a butter carving competition in the same way Saved! is “about” high school -- merely a narrative tool used to convey a greater message. Another thing they have in common is the inevitable audience reception, which I predict to be completely split down the middle and divided into loved it and hated it. The film also stars Ty Burrell, Rob Corddry, Hugh Jackman, Alicia Silverstone and Olivia Wilde.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home written and directed by Mark and Jay Duplass (Cyrus, Baghead) stars Jason Segel, Ed Helms and Susan Sarandon. I’m not a fan of aggravating humor, which is what kept me from the Duplass brothers last film Cyrus. But here they somehow managed to strike a balance between the slow paced/twisted humor of their past films and a new more mature tone. Yes it’s about Segal’s character Jeff, who, well, lives at home, smokes pot, and really likes the movie Signs. The film delves into themes of love and family -- it is quite sweet, funny and even lovely, while maintaining the usual quirkiness of a Duplass brothers film.

Depp and Thompson

The retrospective screening of Edward Scissorhands was a no brainer addition to my schedule. I love getting the chance to see old movies on the big screen -- and on 35mm? Done and done. As if that wasn’t enough, beloved screenwriter Caroline Thompson was there to introduce the film with Johnny Depp. It was a rather surreal moment made all the more wonderful and nostalgic once the Danny Elfman theme started to play (seriously, that theme is, in my opinion, second only to every John Williams theme ever, and that’s saying something). There were apparently many there who had never seen the film, and I envied them a little. I can’t think of a more perfect setting to see this classic for the first time.

The poster reads: “I love you, I need you, I miss you, Like Crazy.” Ever since I saw the trailer with Anton Yelchin, abundant lens flares and the 'oh my God, I have to download that now' Stars song, I’ve been nail biting and waiting to see this movie. It is a story of a long term, long distance relationship complicated by a violated student visa… you know this is going to be a roller coaster ride. And it is. The real killer is how very real it feels. Turns out, it was filmed without a script. Writer/director Drake Doremus said the “script” was 50 pages and read more as a short story, with scene goals and emotion prompts instead of lines of dialog. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Before Sunrise, the 1995 Richard Linklater film with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy.

During the post film Q&A with Doremus, when the inevitable film festival “idiot question” was asked from the audience, Doremus turned it around and blew my mind a little bit. The question was whether or not he was trying to say with this film that long distance relationships don’t work -- Doremus took a quiet thoughtful pause and proceeded to say that relationships, whether you are 6,000 miles or two feet away, are hard. To every romantic/drama made from here on out (*cough* Nicholas Sparks *cough*), please, please take your cues from Like Crazy and forego the overwrought cheese -- there’s plenty of emotion and drama in real life to pull from.

Second only to Like Crazy on my list of anticipated films was The Artist (read Michael Buening’s full review from the NYFF here).

An honest to God silent film, made as an ode to cinema by French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius. Shot in black and white at 22 frames per second but projected at 24 frames for a slightly sped up look/effect. It is worth noting that silent films used to be shot at 16 to 18 frames per second (hand cranked cameras you know), and when we see them now, they have usually been sped up and played at 24 fps – which is why we have the misconception that silent films are fast and jumpy, but I digress. The story is about George Valentin (“the artist” played by French actor Jean Dujardin), a silent film actor at the height of his career, which happens to be the same time studios decide “talkies” are the next big thing and dump Valentin for newcomer Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) who then goes on to rise with the success of talking pictures. It’s like the flip side version of Singin’ in the Rain.

At some point (must have been a quarter through the film) I actually forgot that seeing a silent film was a novel thing. Maybe it was viewing it in the historic Paramount Theater with a crowd of very responsive film enthusiasts, but I was totally swept up by the experience. I can only hope this speaks to the quality of the film and non-festival audiences will find it as magical as I did.

In the gaggle of film festivals the Austin Film Festival has done a laudable job of carving an interesting niche for itself by focusing on the writers and highlighting films by writer/director filmmakers. So many films, so little time…

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